an architect's education - figure drawing

I have been asked on more than a few occasions what advice I would give to a teenager who may be interested in being an architect.  I try to avoid the cranky, cynical responses that most of us can toss out with such aplomb.  More often than not I talk about the passion necessary to see you through the grind of thousands of hours work trying to just get the basics down right.  And the passion required to see you through years of working in offices, often 60+ hours per week, detailing mind-numbingly boring buildings before you get the chance to really be in charge of the design of a building. And then I am asked, most often by inquiring parents, what classes or skills their child should undertake in preparation for architecture school.  And to that question I always reply the same: drawing.

I am admittedly pretty old school about this, but I feel strongly that there is no substitute for learning how to draw competently.  I don't mean art.  I mean the ability to depict in two dimensions a three dimensional object in a manner that is clear and unambiguous.  This is not so much a question of talent as it is the learning of a simple skill.  Everyone can do it and drawing was part of the basic educational package for the educated class back in the nineteenth century.  With the advent of worry-free photography, and especially all the digital visualization tools that we can currently access, there has been a marked loss of the basic skill of drawing in general and in architects in particular.

So why spend so much time learning to draw?  We certainly don't need drawing to depict something and have the ability to show someone else.  My Iphone does that quite well.  But in architecture and design, we are charged with imagining things that don't exist yet.  I can't take a photo of the house I haven't designed yet or the detail I haven't figure out.  But I can draw it, on the spot, and explain it through drawing to someone else.

I draw everyday.  Not beautiful architectural illustrations or artistic visions, but the most rudimentary of sketches and diagrams that help me work out a design that is plaguing me.  More often than not I have at least one sketchbook with me at all times and I use it often to simply describe something I'm talking about to a carpenter or a client.  Frequently I start drawing an explanation of a detail that someone else is trying to describe, unsuccessfully with words alone, to another person in a meeting.

So I have dozens of old sketchbooks piling up on shelves and they are filled with these kinds of diagrammatic drawings and explanatory sketches.

A few weeks ago I decided to take my own advice and take a figure drawing class, a kind of drawing that I haven't done in decades and one that frankly I wasn't too good at when I did.  In two-hour long sessions I work diligently to accurately describe the figure in front of me, sometimes with stark, beautiful success, more often with awkward marks cascading across messy pages.  And I love every minute of it, even if most of the time I think my drawings are a failure.  The discipline of working very hard just to see and mark that seeing with a few lines is satisfying work.  The time flies by and I am usually pretty frustrated at the end of the session but fulfilled in a way that only making something can truly satisfy.

So, to the prospective architect:  draw.  As much as you can.  And if you don't like it, if it doesn't in the end engender a love/hate relationship with it, don't bother with architecture school.  You don't have to be good at, but if don't like this part, the rest may not go so well.